ODE TO JOY DIVISION
Ian Curtis is resurrected in a superb big-screen bio-pic that sounds great and looks even better, especially if you know very little about his band.
APR 13, 2008 – HAD DON MCLEAN’S VINCENT NOT BEEN NAMED SO, had it not been such a readily identifiable tribute to van Gogh, it could have been a chronicle of Ian Curtis. All that heartfelt crooning about “how you suffered for your sanity” and “they would not listen, they did not know how” and “this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you” could just as easily characterise this lead singer of the post-punk band Joy Division, whose abbreviated lifespan (he died at a ripe 23) is best described in his own words from the song Heart and Soul: Existence, well what does it matter / I exist on the best terms I can / The past is now part of my future / The present is well out of hand. The latter lyric, about the present being “well out of hand,” is especially significant, because Curtis suffered from epileptic attacks, sometimes even while on stage. In other words, there were times he had no control – metaphorically, literally – over his life, his body, and that makes Control a nicely ironic title for a film based on his story.
An instinctive reaction to this information would be a roll of the eyes, followed by the groan, “Not another rock bio-pic” – and yes, the usual beats are all here. Young man, poetry in his soul and stars in his eyes, becomes part of a band; he and his comrades get a manager, get on TV, get on stage, get on the road, get high; the young man, meanwhile, gets married, has a baby, has an affair; the more successful they are, the more depressed he gets; on the eve of his band’s first American tour, he kills himself. But the director, Anton Corbijn, skirts the expected rock-god clichés. He resists the temptation of trying to explore Curtis any further – the way, say, Oliver Stone would have, possibly employing each epileptic attack as a convulsive springboard into a phantasmagorical inner world – and the result comes off less the chronicle of a musician than a sad, little movie about a sad, little man. (Almost as if to enhance the doom-and-gloom of the narrative – or perhaps because such images as the thin, vaporous triangle of a smoker’s exhalation lose their mystery in full colour – Control is shot in velvety black-and-white.)
Corbijn’s singular mission seems to be to offer evidence that were it not for his subject’s writing talents, were it not for the fact that he was in a band, were it not for his untimely suicide, Curtis would be you or me – a man who works at an employment exchange (and is not fashionably unemployed) and likes Wordsworth (and not Rimbaud) and who even dances funny, like a stick-figure-chicken flapping its wings. This anonymity – this nowhere-man-ness of Curtis – may be further pronounced if, like me, you’ve not listened to the band earlier, which makes the songs seem like they’ve been expressly written for the film. They’re not once-upon-a-time hits this story is built around; they’re simply the soundtrack to this story. Besides, the real music is in what Curtis writes, what he says. When Joy Division is interviewed by the woman who’ll become Curtis’ mistress, she asks about their music, if it doesn’t contain beauty. And Curtis replies, with the faintest of smirks, “Some of it, yeah. But some of it is not meant to be beautiful.”
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